I drew The Phoenix and the Turtle, a poem by William Shakespeare, for my Deal Me In Challenge, and after reading it, I’m so confused. Fortunately, I pulled up an article on it which said it is one of the more confusing poems in English literature, so I feel a little better. But only a little. Let’s see what I can discover about it ……
First, it’s helpful to know that when Shakespeare mentions “turtle” he means a turtledove, of which, of course, there is a world of difference. Perhaps now it will make some sense.
The Phoenix and the Turtle
Let the bird of loudest lay
On the sole Arabian tree
Herald sad and trumpet be,
To whose sound chaste wings obey.
This is supposed to be a build-up to a funeral procession. And other birds are responding to the “herald”? But only good birds are invited?
But thou shrieking harbinger,
Foul precurrer of the fiend,
Augur of the fever’s end,
To this troop come thou not near.
Here there are certain birds who aren’t welcome. Is he speaking of one bird in particular here? Or a group of birds with certain vile character traits, who must stay away?
From this session interdict
Every fowl of tyrant wing,
Save the eagle, feather’d king;
Keep the obsequy so strict.
So no tyrannical birds may attend except for the eagle who is respected as a king and therefore allowed to be tyrannical???
Let the priest in surplice white,
That defunctive music can,
Be the death-divining swan,
Lest the requiem lack his right.
Now the swan is called to be the priest. An addition of colour … white for purity.
And thou treble-dated crow,
That thy sable gender mak’st
With the breath thou giv’st and tak’st,
‘Mongst our mourners shalt thou go.
Who is the crow who gives and takes? Again, another colour analogy in contrast with that above: he would be black or “sable” which would link with death but he seems to give both life and death? How can he unless he represents God?
Here the anthem doth commence:
Love and constancy is dead;
Phoenix and the Turtle fled
In a mutual flame from hence.
And the funeral begins for the Phoenix and the Turtledove and it is proclaimed that love and constancy is dead, it appears forever.
So they lov’d, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one;
Two distincts, division none:
Number there in love was slain.
Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distance and no space was seen
‘Twixt this Turtle and his queen:
But in them it were a wonder.
So between them love did shine
That the Turtle saw his right
Flaming in the Phoenix’ sight:
Either was the other’s mine.
Property was thus appalled
That the self was not the same;
Single nature’s double name
Neither two nor one was called.
Reason, in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together,
To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded;
That it cried, “How true a twain
Seemeth this concordant one!
Love has reason, reason none,
If what parts can so remain.”
Though in their physical bodies they could not actually be one, now that they are dead, their souls can unite
Whereupon it made this threne
To the Phoenix and the Dove,
Co-supremes and stars of love,
As chorus to their tragic scene:
And so the funeral is concluded.
Beauty, truth, and rarity,
Grace in all simplicity,
Here enclos’d, in cinders lie.
Truth and beauty are now dead.
Death is now the Phoenix’ nest,
And the Turtle’s loyal breast
To eternity doth rest,
Leaving no posterity:
‘Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.
Because their love was a spiritual love, they leave no children.
Truth may seem but cannot be;
Beauty brag but ’tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.
Truth and beauty now are only echos of the true thing.
To this urn let those repair
That are either true or fair;
For these dead birds sigh a prayer.
Lament these birds (and the loss of those virtues).
Mlle Leotine Desavary Holding A Turtledove (1872) Camille Corot
~ source Wikiart
Good grief, I feel like a two-year old. Did you notice all the questions in my analysis? I just couldn’t figure this out; I had a much easier time with his poem A Lover’s Complaint
. And, in spite of the somewhat unfamiliar language, Shakespeare doesn’t usually confuse me; he usually amazes me. But I haven’t read many of his poems so perhaps I’m going to have a different experience. I’m going to be terrified of getting another one.
There is all sorts of speculation around this poem, often that the Phoenix and his Turtledove refer to Queen Elizabeth I and her “favourite”, Robert Devereax, the Second Earl of Essex. Does it denote the death of their love only? The death of her favouritism? Yet many concur that the poem is allegorical and the resemblance to specific people was only known by Shakespeare and perhaps a small circle of his trusted acquaintances. Which makes the reading of it, although interesting, also somewhat frustrating.
Well, on with my challenge! I’ve drawn another card and my next read will be: Self Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson! Phew! I love Emerson and my read of his essay, Friendship, was one of my favourites!